Four years ago, Jason Sprayberry bought a used Sprinter camper van so he'd have a comfy place to stay near his favorite fly-fishing streams and mountain bike trails during breaks from his high-stress tech job. On those weekends when he couldn't get out of town, he rented the RV through a posting on Craigslist.
It was a hit. So he bought several more Sprinters, built a website and recruited others to list their campers and motor homes, creating a marketplace that works like an Airbnb on wheels.
"I'm a joy broker," he said.
At a time when other segments of the travel industry are struggling, Sprayberry joins a growing number of local and national websites involved in peer-to-peer RV rentals. The sites connect road trippers to individual RV owners, and cater to people who want to turn their depreciating campers and motorhomes into income-generating assets.
The biggest national RV peer-to-peer web sites include Outdoorsy.com, which touts thousands of listings in 11 countries, and RVshare, which has more than 100,000 RV listings across the U.S.
Unlike RV dealers and traditional rental companies such as Cruise America, which have long managed fleets of rentals that they own and maintain, these new generation of technology-based companies serve as matchmaking sites for RV owners and enthusiasts.
The rise of the websites come at a time when RV sales — and prices — are soaring. The coronavirus pandemic gave those with a bit of disposable income and a sense of adventure permission to live like nomads and work from anywhere. Travel by RV also helped people feel safe from the spread of COVID-19.
At the website RVshare.com, summer bookings in the Twin Cities this year were up 52% compared with last year. Nationwide, the company's bookings tripled during the past 12 months.
Grady Linder of Minneapolis is among those trying to capitalize on the camper craze. After experiencing the joys of the open road himself, in 2017 he started converting small "transit vans" that are easy to park and get nearly 30 miles per gallon into no-frills campers that he rents on various peer-to-peer websites.
His company, Twin Cities-based Voyager Campervans, has expanded to include Austin, Texas; Nashville and Phoenix.
"These are all people who have never owned an RV before," Linder said. "This is their entry into the RV world."
Demand for RVs has been so strong that Linder is now selling them, too. He charges about $12,000 to build out a van that someone already owns. A new, fully converted model runs about $38,000.
Paul Bolstad and his wife, Sheryl, are prime targets for the growing peer-to-peer rental marketplace. The couple, devoted tent-campers, are now in their 60s. That kind of roughing it just isn't comfortable anymore.
"The rocks are getting bigger and the ground is getting harder," said Bolstad, a professor at the University of Minnesota.
Unwilling to give up their time in the wilds but reluctant to sleep on the ground, they decided to test the RV lifestyle by renting a 19-foot Sprinter van from Sprayberry's website for a three-week trek through the Canadian Rockies.
"It's as big as you can get and it still drives like a car," he said. "And this is is as close as you can get to camping without having to sleep in a tent."
Though they loved the freedom of being able to camp in national parks, prepare food on the road and not have to worry about finding a hotel, Bolstad said they can't justify the expense of buying one.
"These things are $80,000 to more than $100,000 to buy; you'd have to spend a lot of nights in it for it to pencil out," he said, praising the wisdom of those who rent their camper vans on peer-to-peer sites. "This allows them to own it, and not have it be a $100,000 driveway ornament."
For Seth Alsbury, a tech entrepreneur, the path to RV ownership was paved by necessity. At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic he was living in Los Angeles, but had to get back to the Twin Cities quickly to be with his ailing father.
With so much unknown about transmission of the disease, he didn't want to fly and he didn't want to drive a car and stay in hotels. So he bought a used 30-foot Class A motor home. In a nod to Star Wars, he calls it the "Millennium Falcon."
Back in St. Paul, while tending to his father, he no longer needed the RV so he started renting it on a website he created. With bookings rolling in, he shopped ads and auction sites to expand his fleet. As the pandemic spread, so did his customer base.
One family needed to get an aging relative across the country for brain surgery. She relied on a wheelchair, and an RV was the only way.
"The ability to travel self-contained is super fun and convenient, but in the time of pandemic it was critical," Alsbury said. "We felt like we were essential workers on the front line of the pandemic."
Alsbury now owns about 10 RVs that he markets through Sprayberry's websites and a site he launched himself. Like Sprayberry, he's focused on managing the marketing and bookings. He relies on family and a network of mechanics to maintain his fleet and handle the check-ins and check-outs.
"We're on call 24/7," he said. "It's like having a newborn baby. When you get a call at midnight from across the country, you've got to be there at all times."
The rental income, Alsbury said, helps pay the bills and enables him to head south after winterizing the vehicles and putting them in storage. With leaf-peepers making their final trips and the rental season winding down, he's already planning to drive one of the vehicles south to California or Mexico, where he'll surf and play his saxophone.
"It's not technology money," he said. "But it's paying my bills."
Sprayberry is also riding the success of his RV rental business, which enabled him to go cold turkey on the corporate world after getting laid off in the early days of the pandemic.
"I got rid of all my khaki pants and almost anything with a collar," he said. "And I didn't have to feel guilty about not wearing pants during a Zoom meeting."
Many of his more affordable rentals go for about $125 per night and the average driveable rental booking brings in $3,500 to $4,500 per booking, for which he takes a cut.
Sprayberry also feeds his listings to the national websites, which he says take a higher portion of the fees. In an increasingly crowded market, he's trying to differentiate himself from those platforms by providing a higher level of customer service and by taking a smaller share of the rental income than many of the national marketing sites.
"For me, it's just owners and prospective renters talking directly," he said. "I don't have the middleman fees."
Because it's mostly a seasonal business, he's laser-focused on keeping expenses low. He pays or barters with friends and neighbors to let him store his RVs in their driveways. He's the sole employee of the company and he doesn't have an office, enabling him to truly work remotely as he's shuttling from one picture-perfect outdoor destination to the next.
"Anybody who sees me on my Facebook thinks I don't have a job," he said. "It's part of my brand to make it look like I don't."